Back in October 2007, when Tony Abbott was Health Minister, he denied asbestos disease sufferers access to subsidised medicine for their illness.
Naturally, the asbestos disease sufferers were not happy with the decision. And they organised a petition, imploring Abbott to place the costly drug, Alimta, on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. Some 17,000 people signed it.
It was arranged that it would be delivered to Abbott’s Sydney office by Bernie Banton, 61, who was suffering terminal mesothelioma. But when Banton showed up, in his wheelchair, with his oxygen tube, trailed by media, Abbott had done a bunk.
Banton was devastated and told the media so. He said Abbott had known he was coming. He called the then-Health Minister, now-Opposition Leader and probable future Prime Minister a “gutless creep” and a “disgraceful human being”.
Now, we’re not endorsing that description of Abbott, just because he would not list the drug. No, the disgraceful thing was what he did next, when he was asked why he’d avoided facing Mr. Banton.
He impugned Mr Banton’s character.
Said Abbott: “Look, it was a stunt; let’s be up-front about this. I know Bernie is very sick, but just because a person is sick, it doesn’t mean he is necessarily pure of heart in all things…”
Abbott subsequently apologised, but in terms that sounded less like true contrition and more like political calculation, saying: “Bernie is a sick man and obviously he has the moral high ground.”
Indeed, Banton did occupy the high moral ground.
The low moral ground was very crowded. As Ian Verrender wrote last year, in an excellent piece in The Sydney Morning Herald, the risks of asbestos had been recognised as far back as 1935. Yet Australia became the world’s biggest consumer of it.
An estimated 55,000 Australians will die as a result of exposure to asbestos by 2020, Verrender wrote, “innocent victims of a man-made and utterly avoidable plague”.
We could talk about Lang Hancock, Gina Rinehart’s dad, who mined the stuff at Wittenoom. Pity about the workers who inhaled the dust. Or about CSR, which made stuff with it.
Yes, the low ground is crowded with corporate executives and their sundry advisors who did all they could to avoid responsibility for the health tragedy caused by their products.
But let’s concentrate on the worst: James Hardie Industries, which was Australia’s largest producer of asbestos products until 1987, when it stopped.
Hardie’s is famous for having set up a fund to help its asbestos victims, then in 2001, doing an Abbott-like bunk to avoid them.
The company ran all the way to the Netherlands. The fund came up an estimated $1.5 billion short of what was necessary to properly compensate the victims – as if anything can properly compensate terminal illness.
They didn’t get away clean though. In May last year, after a 10-year series of legal proceedings, the High Court of Australia ruled that seven directors of James Hardie Industries had breached their duties as directors in 2001, when they shifted the company.
The directors, including the former chairman Meredith Hellicar, were found guilty of making misleading statements with their promise that they had formed “fully funded” the compensation claims.
And guess which former lawyer-turned-federal-politician counted James Hardie on her client list? That would be the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, Julie Bishop.
Anyway, we mention all this because it came up in Question Time on Monday, as Parliament entered its super-heated final three weeks of sitting before the election.
It came up because the conservatives decided they could make political capital from the fact that evidence has come to light that asbestos is being mishandled by contractors charged with rolling out the Government’s high-speed broadband network, the NBN.
Abbott himself kicked things off, asking Prime Minister Julia Gillard whether the $50 million being spent on an ad campaign to promote the NBN might have been better spent on protecting people from asbestos.
(Just as an aside, there is a real issue here, which is the government spending taxpayer dollars to promote its policies. Clearly the current Labor government has learned well from the former Howard government, which also spent outrageous amounts of our money promoting itself. This is a bipartisan outrage.)
Gillard responded with maximum aggression. She pronounced it “disgraceful” that the Opposition would play politics on such a matter. Then again, she said she might have expected it from a man “who insulted Bernie Banton on his deathbed”.
Abbott dropped out of the questioning after that, and others, principally Opposition Communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull, took up the gauntlet.
The questions were all directed at the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, (and former Australian Workers Union national secretary) Bill Shorten, and were of the “what did you know and when did you know it” variety.
The implication was that Shorten and the government had been careless of the health and safety of workers and the public over the issue.
And as the rolled on, Shorten’s temper shortened. It wasn’t just that he had been assured repeatedly by Telstra that the company was on top of the asbestos problem; it was the suggestion that he, a former union man, should be grilled in such a way. It was the union movement, he repeatedly pointed out, which had fought the battle against asbestos.
But the questions kept coming. How many times had he raised the matter with Telstra and/or the NBN Company? How were workers trained? How many had been accredited to handle asbestos? And so on.
What had he done?
Well, he said, he had represented victims when he was working with the union. He had made representations on behalf of victims since he had been in parliament. And he had worked to implement changes recommended by a review on managing the toxic fibre.
He was getting worked up now. It took a nit-picking point of order to make him snap.
“I’ll tell you one thing I’ve never done,” he bellowed. “I’ve never represented the companies in court who made the asbestos and damaged workers.
“And I’ll tell you what else I’ve never done. I’ve never insulted the victims of asbestos and their campaigners.”
(Photo Mike Bowers/The Global Mail. Photo of Bernie Banton by Paul Miller/Getty Images)